Historic American black churches receives grants

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Administrators of a trust fund established to preserve historic Black churches in the United States on Friday revealed a list of houses of worship receiving $4 million in financial grants.

The list of 35 grantees includes 16th Street Baptist Church Inc. in Birmingham, Alabama, where crucial civil rights organizinbg meetings were held during Jim Crow segregation in the 1960s and where four Black girls were killed after a bombing by members of the Ku Klux Klan in 1963.

Black churches in nearly every region of the U.S. are among the fund’s first round of recipients receiving grants ranging from $50,000 to $200,000.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund launched its “Preserving Black Churches” program in 2021 to help support ongoing or planned restoration work in historic congregations that are caretakers of cultural artifacts and bear monumental legacies. Some church renovations were imperiled or severely postponed three years ago after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, which reduced the capacity of many houses of worship to serve the public at an unprecedented time of need.

Brent Leggs, the fund’s executive director, who is also senior vice president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said, “Leaving an indelible imprint on our society, historic Black churches hold an endearing legacy of community, spirituality and freedom that continues to span generations.”

The Rev. Monica Marshall couldn’t agree with that sentiment more. She was a teenager in the 1970s when she became a member of Varick Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. It is the oldest continuous Black congregation in the borough and has been ministering in the community for more than 200 years.

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Marshall, 66, has fond memories of joining the church’s youth choir, playing the keyboard and leading its music ministry, before accepting the call to preach many years later. In 2010, she became the pastor. There are about 75 active members.

Varick Memorial’s current building dates back to 1951, but is deteriorating and has roofing issues. The church has been mostly uninhabitable since 2020, the reverend said.

“The pandemic made it harder to maintain the building,” Marshall said. “I just heard God tell me, ‘You’re not going back into the same building that you came out of.’ The people have been very faithful, they’ve been waiting on my vision and it just came true.”

The congregation received a grant of $200,000 to support critical restoration of the building’s structural integrity. Marshall said the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund’s efforts have restored hope that Varick Memorial can resume a wider array of services to the community.

“If you don’t know where you’ve come from, it’s hard to press on and go to even greater heights, to deeper depths in your life and in your legacy,” the reverend said.

Many Black churches, both historic and modern, experience challenges related to deferred renovation, insufficient funds for regular maintenance and threats of demolition due to public hazards.

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